Bertha Batters Coast of Carolinas, Continues Up Atlantic
Jul. 13, 1996
WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) _ Hurricane Bertha slapped Cape Fear and then battered a string of coastal towns Friday, ripping off roofs, washing away piers, flooding roads and toppling a Ferris wheel.
More than 250,000 people fled the beaches before the storm, which crashed ashore with top winds of 105 mph, drenching the coastline and spinning off tornadoes hundreds of miles inland.
The storm's top winds weakened to 75 mph as it stalled over land late Friday. By then, more than 395,000 customers had lost power in the Carolinas and a storm surge of 7-9 feet washed out dunes on fragile barrier islands, imperiling some beachfront communities.
``Everything's just torn apart,'' said Allen Sipe, who ventured out of his house to survey damage in his neighborhood in Kure Beach, a narrow island between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic.
Sipe said at least three piers were damaged, and one neighbor's house ``looks like you hit it with a wrecking ball.'' His own house, which he had boarded up, lost only a few shingles.
Bertha's 35-mile-wide eye passed over Bald Head Island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River at midday, then marched up the coast with winds gusting up to 115 mph.
``They're taking a battering,'' said Tom Ditt of North Carolina's Emergency Management Division. ``We don't know what the damages are yet, but they're considerable.''
Friday afternoon, the eye passed over Camp LeJeune and the most punishing winds hit barrier islands just to the east near Morehead City, snapping telephone poles, washing out dunes and flooding roads.
Six people were injured on the huge Marine base, two of whom remained hospitalized late Friday. About 60 miles further north, a man was briefly trapped by a tree that fell through his house, and the Pamlico Queen, a dinner-pleasure boat, broke loose and struck the a major bridge over the Pamlico river, shutting it down, Washington City police said.
At 11 p.m. EDT, Bertha's center was about 100 miles southwest of Norfolk, Va., and its top sustained winds were 75, barely above the threshold for a hurricane. It was moving northeast at about 18 mph, but quickly weakening; forecasters said it would become a tropical storm long before reacing the southern Chesapeake Bay early Saturday morning.
Earlier Friday, the storm's center brushed past Cape Fear and slammed ashore about 5 p.m. in Wrightsville Beach, a thin strip of condos, motels and beach cottages about 5 miles east of Wilmington, a city of 60,000.
New Hanover County officials said Wilmington escaped serious damage, but the nearby beachfront communities were swamped with water and had scattered damage to homes, piers and businesses. At Jubilee Park in Carolina Beach south of Wilmington, a Ferris wheel toppled onto a carousel, smashing several of the ride's horses. A train ride nearby fell onto its side.
A woman who ignored warnings to stay inside was killed Friday in a traffic accident in Kitty Hawk, the ninth death blamed on the storm.
Others who tempted fate included four young men were drinking beer and jumping into waves that carried them swiftly down the beach at Kill Devil Hills. They were still alive _ as were two wind-surfers chased off the beach by the Coast Guard while winds gusted to 70 mph nearby.
The eye of the hurricane first hit land at Cape Fear, the same site where Hurricane Hazel, North Carolina's most damaging storm in recent times, came ashore in 1954. Hazel barreled over Wilmington with 150-mph winds, killing 19 people and causing $136 million in damage.
Bertha was much less powerful, but emergency management officials were glad they aggressively evacuated beach areas well in advance of the storm.
``Wouldn't it be wonderful if all this turned out to be just an exercise?'' Bill Nichols, a spokesman for South Carolina's Georgetown County emergency agency, said just before Bertha turned away from his area.
That's where the storm was originally predicted to hit, and county officials, remembering Hurricane Hugo in 1989, breathed a cautious sigh of relief as Bertha turned north.
The largest damage from the storm might be to the area's tourist-hungry economy. The 175,000 tourists who left South Carolina's Grand Strand usually generate $14 million a day, officials said, and Bertha blew away $4.5 million a day in sales along the Outer Banks alone.
``Losing one day in July is an economic disaster,'' said John Bone, executive vice president of the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce.
Mike Hendrix, manager of two hotels in Myrtle Beach, estimated his loss at $50,000 a day.
Almost 14,500 people woke up in Red Cross shelters Friday after giving up on clogged highways and packed hotels. About 6,800 people stayed in more than 100 shelters, and the agency was preparing to open more in Virginia and Maryland if necessary.
At West Brunswick High School in Shallotte, about 5 miles from the ocean near the South Carolina line, 500 people crammed into the cafeteria for a breakfast of pizza and apple sauce _ the only food available.
Many watched their beach plans go up in the winds of Bertha.
Susan Burstein of Guilford, Conn., who arrived in North Carolina with her sister on Thursday, made the best of it. ``We're doing the same things we would have done anyway _ playing scrabble, catching up and reading our books.''
Fallen trees and blown-out windows were common across the state's southeastern counties. A tornado ripped off part of the roof of a barn in Raleigh where a 4-H Club horse competition was being held this weekend. None of the people or horses at the complex was injured.
Bertha also prompted worries farther up the coast, as forecasters posted tropical storm warnings from the North Carolina-Virginia line all the way to Rhode Island.
The Air Force flew 16 C-5 cargo jets from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to Carswell Naval Air Station near Fort Worth, Texas. At Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, about 100 miles inland, all but essential employees were sent home.
Dangerous rip currents were reported as far north as Massachusetts, where scientists worried that beaches would wash out under 15-foot surf expected by Saturday.
``These storms can double and triple our erosion rate,'' said Mike Reynolds, resource manager of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Carolina beaches were closed, and high waves and threatening riptides caused officials to ban swimming along ocean destinations in New Jersey.
``We have a red flag today. There were a few die-hards on the beach today, but we wouldn't let anyone in the water,'' said Bill Karatz, assistant supervisor of the Belmar, N.J., Beach Patrol. ``We let them get their feet wet, but that's about it.''
Some tourists fled north, but had trouble escaping the weather.
James Hodgkins of Newport, R.I., was in Chincoteague, Va., on Friday after leaving Myrtle Beach, S.C., He hoped the storm would bypass Virginia, but a tropical storm warning was already in effect there.
``I have two of my grandchildren with me and my daughter is frantic,'' he said. ``We're moving along a few hours ahead of the storm.''